Psychological Flexibility: signs, effects and improvement strategies

Ilia Lindsay
7/4/2022
2022/01/30

Schools and education settings are places where young people develop many of the social and emotional skills needed to become resilient and thrive. Many of the experiences and interactions within schools provide the foundations and roadmaps for how to be a global citizen. In consideration of this, schools are in a perfect position to implement strategies and programmes that support and enhance student development so students are prepared and able to engage with the ever changing world around them.

To be an effective and contributory member of society, young people need a chance to develop skills which support them to:

  • Be adaptable and open, yet secure in self
  • Be able to manage/regulate at times of change and/or distress in order to behave appropriately and effectively
  • Be accepting and inviting of alternative perspectives
  • Be able to act in a value-driven manner rather than on impulse or under peer pressure.

In other words, we need Psychological Flexibility. Psychological flexibility is quickly becoming recognised as one of the key indicators of psychological health and wellbeing (Kashdan & Rottenberg 2010). Improving a student’s psychological flexibility promotes positive mental health and overall resilience.

Psychological flexibility is a concept that comes from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) framework. In everyday language, it means holding our own thoughts and emotions a bit more lightly, and acting on longer term values and goals rather than short term impulses, thoughts and feelings. A student with psychological flexibility is able to adapt to fluctuating demands, shift perspectives, reconfigure mental resources in order to be effective and balance competing needs (Tindle & Moustafa, 2021).

Psychological flexibility helps people cope with the ebbs and flows of life while handling problems in unexpected and creative ways. Alternatively, psychological inflexibility and rigidity underpins many mental health disorders and difficulties experienced by students (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010).

So how do you improve Psychological Flexibility?

  • Be willing to feel difficult emotions and thoughts. Through this, students recognise that there are some things out of their control and that they have a choice to let go of the struggle against those things.
  • Step back from your thoughts. Through this process of defusion and separating from our thoughts, we are able to notice thinking patterns rather than getting stuck and caught up in them.
  • Focus on the present. By being present and mindful, students become attuned to what is occurring right now. Anchoring to this moment and not being distracted by the past or future.
  • Let go of attachment and rigidity. Rather than fusing with and remaining firmly attached to thoughts and emotions, this helps students observe themselves as separate from, yet aware of, their thoughts, feelings and experiences.
  • Live by your values. Through this process students connect to a deeper sense of what matters to them and can make decisions and choices based on this direction.
  • Build habits based on your values. Finally, we help students take action towards their value-based goals even when this means going through difficult emotions, thoughts and situations.

Each of these processes is ongoing and they overlap each other to create Psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is an invaluable mental skill that anyone can develop at any stage of life.

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References:

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.

Tindle, R., & Moustafa, A. A. (2021). Psychological distress, social support, and psychological flexibility during COVID-19. In Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 (pp. 89-101). Academic Press.